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Analysis & Opinion
14.03.12 Non-Swing State
By Masha Charnay

Back in 2009, when President Dmitry Medvedev staked out the territory for his modernization program, he made an august promise to see Russia turn from an “archaic” society into a “country of intelligent, free and responsible people.” Two and a half years later, anti-gay legislation continues to close in on Russia’s LGBT community and Medvedev’s vision looks ever more imperiled.

Late last week the governor of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, signed a bill criminalizing any action deemed as propaganda of “sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism among minors.” The law, which will take effect ten days after its official publication, entails fines of up to 5,000 rubles ($160) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($16,500) for organizations.

During the bill’s third and final reading in late February, city legislators said the impetus for the ban came after gay activists were detained for holding a protest near a school in the city of Rostov. But what started as a plan aimed purportedly at protecting Russian minors has morphed into a measure that is seen by many activists as a devastating blow to gay rights. “This law will paralyze almost all of the work that is done to help gay and transgender adolescents assimilate and prevent social harassment,” said Sasha Semyonova, a coordinator at St. Petersburg’s LGBT organization “Coming Out,” who likened the measure to fascism. “Same-sex couples with children are particularly distressed by the legislature and many are making plans to move.”

The equivocal language of the law, which provides few specifications as to the meaning and extent of the term “propaganda,” could make prosecutable any act from wearing a rainbow pin to raising children in a same-sex family. One of the biggest fears among LGBT groups is that the law would affect HIV/AIDS prevention outreach. Others say it would spell the end to social support programs for gay teenagers – a detriment to a country with one of the highest rates of teenage suicide in the world.

But perhaps more offensive some gay activists and critics of the legislature find the fact that the law ties homosexuality to pedophilia. At its last reading Vitaly Milonov, the United Russia deputy behind the initiative, who called gay people “perverts,” argued that the bill was no different from a law that prohibits the sale of alcohol within a 100-meter radius of school grounds. “No one is bothering them. No one is threatening them. In fact, it would be repulsive to get near them,” Milonov wrote about LGBT activists on a Russian Orthodox Web site. “But wanting to [kick them out of school premises] is a healthy reaction among normal people.”

Legislation of the same kind already exists in the Russian cities of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk and Kostroma. Lawmakers in Moscow also promised to get on with passing the bill, while Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said the law underscores a “grave concern” to society and would be welcomed at the federal level (back in 2002, the Russian Parliament had taken up a proposal to criminalize homosexuality, but the bill was later dismissed).

Still, it is striking that St. Petersburg – home to a vibrant gay community and one of the westernmost Russian cities – should find itself beleaguered by the issue. But Semyonova said it is only logical, since the law allows politicians to target Russia’s largest LGBT organizations – all located in St. Petersburg. She attributed the measure to the nature of Russian politics, which she says aims to keep the population under control by pitting social groups against one another. “It’s nice when you can find an internal enemy to pin all of your social problems on. Using ethnic minorities has become somewhat inconvenient,” Semyonova suggested. “Sexual minorities, on the other hand, are a very small and stigmatized social group, which the government does not expect to retaliate.”

Among the social problems that Russian sexual minorities have been credited with exacerbating is the demographic crisis and the endangerment of the institution of family. At the forefront of the campaign against gay people is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has long since perceived the LGBT community as seeking to demoralize the society.

Upon the signing of the law last week, a spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church Vladimir Legoyda welcomed the development, saying it would help to protect children and adolescents against a “perverted worldview.” “It’s clear that it has become a fashionable global trend to exercise what they call tolerance,” Legoyda said. “But such principles as same-sex love will not find support among the church.”

Leading Russian sociologist and author of a number of works on homosexuality Igor Kon posited that the church was using anti-gay attitudes to pursue political ambitions. “Having turned homophobia into a national religious idea, church leaders are using it to unite conservative forces and confessions not only within Russia, but also at a global level,” Kon wrote in 2007.

Meanwhile, homophobic sentiments retain a strong hold on the general population and, as polls show, they have intensified over the last decade. Research by the Levada Center shows that the number of respondents who think gay people should receive medical treatment, be isolated or altogether removed from society, has increased from 53 percent in 1994 to 67percent in 2010.

Russia’s delayed coming-of-age apropos of gay tolerance could be explained by the relatively recent measures taken to destigmatize homosexuality. The law that criminalized homosexual conduct was rescinded in Russia only in 1993 (in France, the law was abolished in 1791). And the official decision to remove homosexuality from the category of behavioral pathology was taken only in 1999. Both measures were adopted on the fly in the post-Soviet decade of reforms, and little time was given to the medical community and the public to form an opinion of their own accord. Moreover, public knowledge and discussion of homosexuality have remained scant until recently.

With the new law, human rights groups now fear that even this progress could be reversed. Meanwhile, Western governments have urged Russia against such policies and gay activists have continued to hold protests. “Their desire to continue protesting outside children's establishments reflects the timeliness of this regional law, which should immediately receive federal status,” said Father Dimitri Pershin, the head of the Orthodox Church’s Youth Council.
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